The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper

One of the poems in How She Read by Chantal Gibson, Excerpts: Marie-Joseph Angelique, Montreal 1734, sparked my interest in a Canadian historical figure: Marie-Joseph Angelique, a Black enslaved woman who lived in Montreal for the last 10 years of her life. She was executed after being convicted of arson in Montreal in 1734. Gibson’s poem referenced a non-fiction work, The Hanging of Angelique, by Dr. Afua Cooper. Dr. Cooper is a Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University, the former Poet Laureate of Halifax, and the author of numerous volumes of poetry. I checked the book out from the library, and I’m really glad that I did.

Question: Did legal slavery exist in Canada? I have no memory of learning this in school. I asked my hubby and he also didn’t think so. We both had the notion that slavery didn’t occur in Canada, because we only learned about the north-bound Underground Railway. Turns out, this is incorrect. Slavery was a formal institution in Canada for over 200 years. We are technically speaking of the colonial region of New France in the 1600 and 1700s, as Britain didn’t conquer the region until 1760. Legalized slavery was well established in New France (informally called Canada at the time), and didn’t even end under British rule until 1834. Usually the mercantile or upper class owned slaves, who could be Aboriginal or Black.

The Hanging of Angelique, nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2006, is the result of Dr. Afua Cooper’s extensive research on the life of Angelique. The written records are scant. She was born in Portugal as a slave, was sold to a Flemish man who brought her to the New World, and then later sold to a mercantile family in Montreal in 1725. She was accused of setting the fire of Montreal in 1734, which destroyed a huge amount of the city. Much of the written record comes from the trial transcripts. Angelique maintained her innocence, but given a mountain of circumstantial witness evidence that pointed to her culpability, she was found guilty and executed after she was tortured, by hanging.

The book is a remarkable feat, and I decided to spend two days just immersing myself in it. Cooper uses the story of Angelique as a scaffolding to give us chapters on the history of slavery in Europe, starting with Portugal, how this practice migrated to the New World, in including New France. We then have chapters on life in New France, Montreal and the social conventions that facilitated slavery. There were fewer enslaved persons in Canada than the south, and they often did domestic work, but Cooper makes the point that slavery in Canada was not “easier” or “gentler”; rather, evidence of the rebellion and escape attempts of enslaved persons shows us how truly intolerable the practice was in New France. Cooper points out to us, “Canada might not have been a slave society-that is, a society whose economy was based on slavery-but it was a society with slaves.”

This is evident in the story of Angelique as we know it. She rebelled, talked back to, and threatened her owner. She had probably set a house fire before, and tried to escape, though was hunted down and returned to Montreal. Subsequently, her owner informed her she had been sold, and come spring would be transported to the West Indies, which must have been a hugely frightening prospect. I cannot imagine such a sense of hopelessness.

I liked the structure of the book, with each section detailing a different historical aspect of the slave trade in order to build Angelique’s world. It helped me to understand the context of her life and purported actions. Be warned, the historical details are dense and long at times, but I think they are worth reviewing as an excellent history lesson. I loved the sections where Cooper brought Angelique to life. She had to speculate a great deal, and this is evident as she writes. These portions almost seem novelized, and Cooper gave opinions of Angelique’s possible thoughts and motivations. Cooper held Angelique with great care and compassion as she wrote, which I appreciated. It was poignant when she described the lack of knowledge we have of her: “We have no physical description of Angelique…We know that she was an, ‘esclave de la nation negresse.’ A Black slave woman.” Cooper goes on to ask questions about her, how she lived, what indignities she may have endured. Historians call her Marie-Joseph Angelique, but that was a name imposed on her when she was baptized by her new Montreal owners. No one knows her real name.

For me, this book was an important history lesson, and will add to the reading that I am doing to educate myself about our true history in all of its complexity. It sparked some great discussion in my household, which is part of the process of re-education and learning. I hope that you add this to your reading list.